Neapolitan Novels

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The finale to Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels chronicling the lives and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila didn’t disappoint and it’s hard to think of a series equally as rewarding and consistently fantastic. It’s impossible to convey, in a review, what makes Ferrante’s writing so extraordinary. On the surface, if you tried to describe the story, it sounds just like any domestic drama – lives of two women as they mature from girlhood into adulthood, going through various highs and lows, grappling with motherhood, making ends meet, becoming successful, growing old. But their experiences and everyday lives are just so incredibly well-drawn, with such degree of richness, texture and psychological insight, in prose that’s so crystal and powerful.

Because I left a bigger gap between reading this book and the rest, I actually forgot the premise of the first novel, where, in the present day, Elena decides to write the story of her 60-year-old friendship with Lila after Lila herself disappears without a trace. And there’s a sense of the story coming full circle, in a few respects. After years of trying to escape her old neighbourhood in Naples, in this novel Elena comes back to the city with her two young daughters after the break-up of her marriage, and eventually moves into an apartment directly above Lila’s. Her writing career is thriving, while Lila and her partner Enzo have a successful business and Lila becomes entangled in the murky underworld politics of the neighbourhood. The two friends become pregnant at the same time, and Elena observes the traits and dynamics in the relationship between their daughters that strangely resemble her own and Lila’s (Lila’s daughter is bright and precocious, while Elena’s Imma is more ordinary and submissive). Other long-running story strands, like Elena’s obsession with Nino, her love since childhood, thankfully come to an end (Nino has become one of my least favourite fictional characters and it’s a relief when Elena finally gets over him).

While Elena is a character who breaks with the traditions that bind the women of her time, becoming an academic and a writer, getting involved in feminism, leaving behind Naples and her family in both geographical and emotional sense, the story of her rebellion is still a fairly conventional one. Lila however defies any easy categorisation and, in the end, remains one of the great literary enigmas. After reading the first novel, I felt that Lila’s opaqueness made her a somewhat unsatisfying character, but after finishing the series it’s clear that mystery is at the core of her character, and that Elena puts their story in writing partly in order to figure out her friend who has shadowed her life for decades and never really left despite the long stretches of separation.

In this book, Lila remains the same fascinating figure, the “terrible, dazzling girl”: cruel yet kind, manipulative yet honest, charismatic, capricious, submissive to no one, a constant source of feelings of inferiority in Elena despite the success she’s achieved. Her presence in Elena’s life is both toxic and indispensable. At the same time, Elena comes to realise that Lila lacks the solid centre she herself possesses, particularly when her friend, in a rare unguarded moment, talks about the terrifying episodes of dissociation she describes as “dissolving boundaries”. One of the things Ferrante captures really well is the way any strong emotion in her characters has an underbelly and nothing can be described as simply love, hate, happiness, envy etc. My own feelings about the two main characters are similarly divided: while Lila is a much more compelling character, Elena with her frank admissions and insecurities is easier to identify with.

Some of the descriptions can get old over the course of the series – how many times can Lila narrow her eyes, already? But in the end, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of a complicated female friendship so intricately and intimately portrayed.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

9781925240023Surprisingly, I got through the third entry in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels much quicker than the first two – maybe because of greater familiarity with her style. In this novel, Elena/Lenú and Lila, the two girls we first met as young children in My Brilliant Friend, are now grown women entering their third decade. At the conclusion of the previous book, Lila left her husband and ended up in poverty, working at a sausage factory and enduring miserable conditions and sexual harassment, whereas Lenú left Naples for Florence, got engaged to a young professor from a distinguished academic family, and became an accidental published author. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that their respective fortunes will seesaw throughout the book, as will their difficult relationship, which persists despite the two young women losing contact for years and Lenú admitting, at one point, that true heart-to-heart intimacy is no longer possible between them.

Despite the changes in their lives, at the core the two women remain the same: Lila plows ferociously through life, getting involved in the class struggle and political upheaval of Italy at the time, Lenú experiences life mainly as an observer. Even though she escaped her old neighbourhood and the cage of poverty, her marriage turns out to be a cage all the same, and she struggles to find her own voice as a writer as well as coping with demands of being a wife and mother (a shiny happy look on motherhood this book isn’t).

Ferrante’s writing is as wonderful as ever, but since most of the book follows Lenú’s own life this time, I rather missed the setting of Naples and the old supporting cast of characters, who do appear but are given less time or are simply mentioned by other characters. The passing of years was at times hazy and took me unawares – at one point I went, oh wait Lila’s son is already 10 years old? Also, a certain character who I hoped was well out of Lenú’s life comes back, causing me to groan a bit. It was the first time I felt like Ferrante’s tale got too soap-opera-ish and it’s also my own personal peeve against the “heroine pines after a man who is SO not worth it” story trope. These issues aside, it’s still a fantastic, intelligent, visceral, multi-layered read. Bring on the final fourth book!

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

storyofanewnameThe second entry in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels is just as good as the first one, if not better. It continues to chart the stories of Elena and Lila, the two young girls from Naples, as they enter adulthood, and the course of their relationship which is far too complicated to be referred to as friendship.

At the end of the last book, Lila appears to have hit a jackpot, escaping the poverty of her childhood through a marriage to Stefano Carraci, a prosperous shopkeeper, and becoming a glamorous Jackie O of the neighbourhood. That perfect image doesn’t last for long when Lila finds out that her new husband is not the man she thought he was, and comes back from their honeymoon with a bruised face. The novel portrays the casual domestic abuse and rape, in a society that takes it for granted that a man must subdue his wife in any way possible, in a stark unflinching way that truly makes you wince. Meanwhile, Elena, or Lenú as she’s most often called, continues to plod along with her studies and pine after Nino, the older student intellectual from the neighbourhood who doesn’t return her affections.

Lila and Lenú’s love-and-hate relationship remains the heart of the series, and Ferrante has a marvellous way with exploring the nuances and complexities of the female friendship. As much praise and success Lenú achieves with her studies, she can never escape the nagging feeling that she is in some way a fraud, and that Lila is still the truly brilliant scholar of the pair even though she quit school and remained stuck in Naples. When, later in the book, Lenú becomes a published author, her elation is soured by the realisation that the heart of her book, and the indefinable quality that drew people to it, came from Lila’s short story she’d written as a child. In the matters of the heart, Lenú’s passivity condemns her to sit on the sidelines looking on while Lila boldly goes for what she wants, no matter the cost. She can’t escape Lila and her strange charismatic pull even after making a conscious attempt to sever ties and move on. Lila’s jealousy of her friend is less obvious, but there’s a telling episode where she comes along to her friend’s professor’s gathering, and is ignored while Lenú is roundly praised, which causes her to lash out at Lenú in a truly hurtful manner that, as Lenú realises later, covers up Lila’s own hurt.

The novel also explores more social themes, as Lenú’s path takes her further away from Naples and the fate of the women in her neighbourhood she wants so badly to escape:

I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?

Blending into her new world of middle-class intellectuals is however a painful task – Lenú sheds her Neapolitan speech for a more cultured Italian, changes her clothes, even catches the eye of one of the affluent fellow uni students, which seems to grant her some extra legitimacy. But she remains an outsider in this world, realising that, no matter how hard she studies, she’ll never have the qualities the people born into this social circle naturally have. While back home she is a stranger – her family are proud of her but can’t understand or relate to her.

Ferrante’s writing is at once easy to read, and has the density that makes it impossible to just gallop through the book, even for a fast reader like me. It’s a sort of book that deserves and rewards careful and slow reading. Once again, I can’t wait to keep on reading about these two damaged, extraordinary women.